MANAUS, Brazil — She is the best women’s goalkeeper in the world, a change agent who regularly influences the outcomes of games. Just last Saturday, Hope Solo had made the difference in the U.S.’s 1–0 victory against France, denying a point-blank shot by Marie-Laure Delie. With jeers raining down on Solo from the Brazilian fans all tournament, the result of a Zika-related social media post, it seemed like Solo was completely ignoring the catcalls.
And so it was stunning to see Solo commit an outright howler on Tuesday against Colombia, letting Catalina Usme’s first-half free kick go through her hands and her legs on its way to the net. Usme scored on another free kick in the 90th minute, and while the late equalizer was hardly another howler by Solo, she could have done better on that play, too.
But give Solo some credit. The two-time Olympic gold medalist didn’t hide from the media after the game. Not at all, in fact. And she didn’t try to provide any spin or excuses, because she said there weren’t any.
“It’s part of the position, and I don’t wish it on anybody,” Solo said in the mixed zone after the 2–2 tie, which still clinched first place in the group for the U.S. team. “Being a goalkeeper is extremely difficult mentally. But I’ve been around long enough to know that these things do happen. They’ve happened to me before. You just hope they happen few and far between.”
The last time Solo had a significant gaffe in a major tournament was in the opening game of the 2007 World Cup, when she let a routine North Korean shot go through her hands and into the goal. That was nine years ago. Her mistakes in a U.S. uniform are so rare that when they do happen, you want to pinch yourself to make sure you’re not imagining things.
“I have learned to have a short-term memory,” Solo said on Tuesday, “so I’m just going to put this game behind me and move on. Because I think there’s going to be some great football in the coming games, and I’m going to have to come up big and keep our team in it.”
There’s a reason goalkeepers are different from the rest of us. The mental pressure they deal with is extraordinary. Howlers get no easier when you’re 35 than when you were 22. “It always stings,” Solo said. “Honestly, if I ever have kids they will not become a goalkeeper, I assure you that. I don’t wish it on anybody. I think it is the most unforgiving position in all of sports.”
Soccer is a game of fine margins. On Saturday, Solo made the split-second save that gave the U.S. a chance to win a 1–0 game. There was a margin for error on Tuesday night, a margin that Solo helped earn. But now that the U.S. is in the knockout rounds—it will face Sweden and former U.S. coach Pia Sundhage in Brasília on Friday—there is no margin for error.
When asked what she’ll say to Solo after Tuesday’s game, U.S. coach Jill Ellis said: “Respectfully, kind of: Crap happens. Move on. Sometimes when a field player makes a mistake it’s not going to cost you. But she’s so solid, she’s had a great tournament to date. I just think mentally she’s got to put it behind her and focus on the next game. Knowing Hope and her mental strength, I think she’ll return fine from that.”
Sweden is an intriguing opponent. On the one hand, the Swedes have been less than impressive in this tournament and in last year’s World Cup. On the other hand, Sweden has given the U.S. fits in major tournaments, including a tie in last year’s World Cup and a Sweden win at World Cup 2011. If any opposing coach knows the U.S. well, it’s Sundhage.
The U.S. players weren’t all gloom and doom after Tuesday’s tie, either. They knew the lineup had been shuffled, that players had been rested and that they will enter Friday’s quarterfinal with no suspensions and all 18 players available.
“I would rather this happen now to maybe light some fire under us and motivate us even more,” said co-captain Carli Lloyd. “Every tournament is a different journey. In the World Cup we tied Sweden. In the 2008 Olympics we lost our first match. I’m not worried. I still think we’re going in the right direction.”
“In every tournament I’ve played in, nothing has gone perfect,” said Solo. “In last year’s World cup, we won but we weren’t playing great every single game. In my first major tournament, the ball went through my hands. It happens. These things happen. And you have to get through them in order to hopefully stand on top of the podium.”